Elizabeth quietly slipped out the kitchen door of her aunt and uncle's London home. What she was about to attempt was questionable at best, and she knew Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner would stop her if they knew.

Slipping through a few neighbors' gardens, she made it to the street. From there she walked to the market at Cheapside. Two days ago she had been this far, when she had hired a boy for a few coins and again yesterday when he had reported back what he had found. Today she wandered for a short time, waiting for acceptable visiting hours, then hailed a hackney.

She was in Mayfair before she could think about what she was doing. She exited the coach and took a deep breath, bracing herself for what she was about to try.

Darcy was startled out of his brooding by the knock on his study door. He sighed. Four weeks, and he still could not stop agonizing over the rejection he had received. He had thrown himself into his business affairs as a reminder that impeccable business morals were one of the true signs of a gentleman. It had not worked yet, he could still feel the bite from her reproofs.

He called for Morris to enter, correctly assuming his butler was at the door.

"Mr. Darcy, sir, there is a young lady at the door who insists that she knows you are home, despite my protests, and also insists that you will see her."

"Do you have her name?" Darcy asked. He wondered if something had happened to Bingley or Caroline had decided to do something rash.

"An Elizabeth Bennet, I believe she said, sir."

Darcy was shocked mute, having never imagined she would be at his door. Her clear disgust of him had made that thought impossible. He had imagined the slight chance of ever seeing her again in the future, but had not thought it would be so soon.

It did not take long for those feelings of surprise to translate into anger. Why was she here? Why would she so cruelly throw herself into his path? And in such a manner; to arrive at his doorstep and all but force her way into his home. Hadn't she said enough?

"Shall I turn her away, sir?" Morris inquired.

Darcy shook his head to gather himself, "No, show her in Morris. I will deal with her."

"As you wish, sir."

As he waited, Darcy felt all of the bitterness he held for her return. She had disparaged his manners and his morals, declared him ungentlemanly, and had assumed the worst of him.

He heard Morris in the hall with her and stood to greet her in a gentleman-like manner.

"Miss Bennet, sir," Morris introduced her, showing his distaste for an unmarried woman visiting a gentleman alone.

"Yes, thank you Morris," Darcy replied his dismissal. "You may shut the door."

He did not care if her reputation was ruined. She had put herself in this position, and he would not be airing his personal matters to his household to save her.

Elizabeth looked over Darcy's features carefully, seeing the tight lines about his eyes and the grim set of his jaw. She did not fail to notice that he would not return that perusal. He kept his eyes determinedly fixed on her shoulder. She sighed. This did not speak well to his overcoming any resentment he rightfully carried. He also did not appear inclined to speak.

"Hello, Mr. Darcy. How do you do?" she tried.

"Miss Bennet," he replied tersely.

She stood quietly for a moment, trying to decide if he would bend at all, or if she should simply give up now. There was so much at stake, though, and if she needed to suffer humiliation for the sake of her family, she would.

"I wish to speak with you on something of importance to me. May I be seated?" she finally asked, realising he had no intention of offering her a chair.

"If you must."

Elizabeth nearly rolled her eyes. She had wounded him, and she knew his resentment was implacable, but still.

She helped herself to the chair in front of his desk and waited for him to seat himself. He did so, finally looking directly at her. His face was a grim mask, and he crossed his arms in a way that she assumed was meant to be intimidating. He mostly looked like a stubborn child who had lost an argument, but she did not think he would like to hear that.

"I have no intention of wasting your time, so I shall simply state my purpose. Many things have changed in my life in the four weeks since I last saw you. As you can probably see by my dress, I am in mourning. I have lost my dear father."

Darcy watched her falter on her last sentence, but when memories of his own father's passing tried to intrude, he crushed them down. He saw now, why she was here. She suddenly found herself in need of a husband and her family in need of a saviour. What kind of woman begged a man to marry her? Did she actually think he would want to marry her knowing how she felt?

"Other...things have changed as well, and my family finds itself in rather dire circumstances. If you would hear me out, I intend to be very honest with you about what has happened. I have no intention of 'taking you in' so to say. I need to start by apologising, however. I have read your letter, and I was wrong about you. I am sorry that I was so quick to judge you on another's words without giving you a chance. You are a much better man than I gave you credit for. I have been cruel and thoughtless, and for that, I sincerely apologise."

She paused here to look at him in attempt to gauge his reception of her. He had not relaxed his rigid posture, but had not demanded she leave, either.

During this speech, Darcy had been perusing her features and criticizing them to keep from feeling for her. It was much easier to question his original attraction to her when she wore unflattering black dress of low quality that made her face appear sallow. She had circles around her eyes, and it was apparent that she had lost some weight.

He spoke before she could go on, "Yet you are only apologising now because you want something from me."

"That is not entirely true. I sought you out to make the apology because of my needs, but I wished for the opportunity within a few hours of receiving your letter. I was, and am, heartily ashamed of myself."

"And what do you want me to do with that information, madam?"

He watched her hesitate to respond. He held himself rigid, refusing to feel sympathy for her. He would not be taken in by a grasping woman who would use him. She had admitted to being wrong about Wickham, but that did not absolve her of accusing him of ungentlemanly behaviour or despising him. He would not budge, no matter her pleas.

"I had hoped, from reading your letter, I had thought that maybe…" she drew a deep breath, already seeing her own failure. She would finish this, pointless as she now saw it to be. "I had hoped, at best, there was a possibility that your offer would still stand. At the least, I thought you might be willing to assist my family."

His brow darkened further. "It does not, and I am not," he responded in clipped tones.

Her heart sank. She did not deserve his compassion, yet, from his letter she had thought he might offer it. The adieu had been so charitable. Clearly she still did not know him at all.

She stood.

"I am sorry for having taken up so much of your time," she said shakily. She could not hide that she was upset, and she had no energy left to control her tears. It was time to leave, before she made this any worse for either of them.

"Please accept my best wishes for your health and happiness," she tried one more time in desperation. His jaw clenched impossibly tighter at the familiar phrase. Nothing would sway him, and she had held onto such a small thread of hope. What would happen to her family now?

That thought pushed her over the edge, and the tears began to fall.

She ran out the door without taking her leave. She did not stop when his butler appeared, nor at the front door. She ran down his steps and out to the street. She did not hail a hackney this time, there were few funds left for those luxuries. She knew the way back to her uncle's, and she ran as quickly as she could to leave the sight of his house behind.

What were a couple of miles when her heart was breaking? She had thought he was so much more of a man than she had originally made him out to be, but clearly she had remade him over too well. No man could be as saintly as her hopes had painted him. At least now she knew. It was her fault that her family was bound for disgrace. She had refused two offers of marriage that could have saved them, and the second she had come to regret badly. It might have taken time to become accustomed to one another, but he was not a bad man. Even if she never loved him, she felt she could have respected him. If only she had known.

She could not hold a grudge against him for despising her. Her treatment of him had been abominable, and he had acknowledged that he was unforgiving. She had done this to herself.

Darcy had stood with Elizabeth, and stayed standing as she fled. He watched her go, wondering why he had seen her at all. What had he hoped to gain? Did he want her regret? Now that he had it, he felt no triumph.

Morris interrupted his musings with a knock on the already open door.

"Sir, the young lady left her hat and gloves behind. Should I send them to her home?"

"She did not stop for them?" he asked dumbly.

"I do not think she noticed, sir. She left in a bit of a...rush."

"She ran all of the way out of the house?"

"Out and down the street, sir. She did not have a conveyance of any kind."

"Did you see how she arrived?"

"Hackney coach, sir."

Darcy did not respond.

"Do you have her direction, sir?"

"No, leave them with me. I will take care of it."

"Certainly, sir," Morris replied and set them on the desk.

"Do you need anything else, sir?"

"No," Darcy replied distractedly.

Morris watched him for a moment, and then left, pulling the door closed behind him.

Darcy stared at the hat and gloves for a full minute, and then realisation of what he had just done hit him like a brick. He staggered back and fell into his chair.

He was horrified. Elizabeth had accused him once of being ungentlemanly, and he had just proven it to her. A woman came to him in desperate need, and he would not even hear her out. A woman he claimed to love less than a month ago. He had been so cruel that she had fled his presence and run into the street. She had been heedless of her bare head or the danger of a young woman alone in London.

All because of him and his ridiculous pride. She had called him out for that once, too.

He dropped his head into his hands. No wonder she had hated him when he proposed. He had not learned from it, either. He had failed to give her well-applied reproofs the justice they deserved. He had sat in his house and been indignant. He had spent his time railing against her faults, rather than looking to his own.

How many times had he put his pride before someone else's needs? Did his pride matter more than another's safety? Livelihood? Basic self-respect?

He had let her into his study for what? To watch her humiliation? He knew when she had entered that he was not going to give her any quarter, so why put her through that?

Was he that self-absorbed? He knew what it was like to lose a father cared for so deeply that his passing left physical pain in its wake. His lack of compassion during her desperation may have been the single most despicable thing he had ever done. His own father would be ashamed of him.

And he loved her. Seeing her hat and gloves lying abandoned in front of him tore down the wall he had tried to build around his heart. She had dropped a second chance at her in his lap, and he had thrown it back at her in a fit of resentment.

She had said there was more to her story than her father's death. He assumed that Collins had gleefully pushed them out the door, but could there be more? Why couldn't he have at least had the decency to let her share her troubles? Marrying her was not the only way for him to help. He was a man with funds and connections. There was not much he could not accomplish.

The man of action in him demanded that he do something to relieve her suffering. But where was she staying? She had an uncle who lived Cheapside, or was it near Cheapside? He would have run after her if he thought he would be lucky enough to pick the right streets. Other than a vague general direction, he had no idea where she would have gone, though. Why hadn't he listened better when Caroline Bingley had extolled on her horror at the Bennets' trade relations? Could he go to her and demand she tell him where Miss Bennet had been staying in the winter?

He did not trust her to give him the right address, if he was honest with himself. But how else to find Elizabeth? He did not think he had many other options. Not quick ones, anyway, and he wanted to find her fast.

The following morning Elizabeth and Jane were helping their young girl-cousins learn the fine art of trimming an old bonnet to make it fresh when Sally came into the school room.

"Miss Elizabeth, there's a gentleman here to see you privately, and Mrs. Gardiner says it's up to you if you want to. She doesn't mind, as long as you leave the parlour door open."

Elizabeth was surprised, she could not imagine it would be him, but who else could it be?

"Did the gentleman give a name, Sally?"

"Yes miss, a Mr. Darcy I do believe."

Jane gave her a sympathetic look. Elizabeth had not breathed a word of her adventures of the past few days to anyone, but Jane knew of his proposal.

"Would you like me to come with you, Lizzy? I can only imagine how awkward meeting him again might be."

She thanked Jane, but went by herself. Whatever he had to say, she was sure she would not want an audience.

She entered the parlour to find him looking out the window. At the sound of her entrance he turned quickly and walked toward her.

"Miss Bennet!" he exclaimed. She saw his hand reach out slightly, and then he drew it back to his side.

"Mr. Darcy," she curtsied.

"Are you well, Miss Bennet?"

She gave him a strange look.

"As well as I may be."

"I am glad to see you made it home yesterday."

She blushed and looked away. Why was he here? To ridicule her indiscretions? She did not think her fragile emotions could handle any more.

"Mr. Darcy, forgive me, but why are you here and how did you find me?"

Darcy sighed. He had done the work of finding her, and now he had no idea what to say. A long night without sleep did not help.

"Your second question is easy to answer. I asked Caroline Bingley where your uncle's house was and his name. When I called, I asked for your aunt, and she confirmed that you are staying here and gave me permission to speak with you."

"And the first?" she replied. She was surprised that he had gone through so much trouble to find her. After yesterday she did not think he would ever wish to see her again, let alone seek her out.

"I came to return these," he replied, as he held her hat and gloves out for her.

She tensed and did not move to take her things. She could not. If he knew where she lived, he could have had them sent to her. She did not understand why he would be here himself. Slowly, dreading the scorn she was imagining there, she raised her eyes to his. To her surprise, her tortured feelings were reflected upon his face.

"Also, I want to help. I am terribly sorry for the loss of your father, and I assume your home. I want to know what else has upset you so, and I want to help, if I may."

"I do not understand. Why?" she barely whispered.

He cringed at the distrust in her voice. She had every right to question his motives after his behaviour of yesterday.

"After you left yesterday, I saw the hat and gloves that you left behind. In that moment, I realised that you had fled from me in distress because I was horrible. You ran without concern for your health, and I did that to you. I could have caused your ruination because my pride could not accept what you had accused me of a month ago. I realised then that I am everything terrible that you have ever accused me of. You came to me in distress, and I was cruel. I treated you abominably. You once said that I was not a gentleman, and yesterday I proved that to you. It is my turn to be heartily ashamed of myself."

Elizabeth could not handle the feelings this speech created in her. She did not know how it was possible, but he must have forgiven her. She sat down and cried. She could not have stopped the tears. She covered her mouth to muffle the sobs that tried to escape and continued to cry.

Darcy sat next to her and handed her his handkerchief. He thought these were tears of relief, but her distress still tore at his heart.

"Miss Bennet, please do not distress yourself. I am a fool twice over, and not worth your tears. Please let me help you."

She began to draw deep breaths to calm herself. Now was not the time to give in to every feeling. He had offered to help, and she needed him.

"Can you not tell me what has happened? If there is anything in my power to do, it will be done."

"You might not wish to promise that before you hear what I have to say. If I were not desperate, I would not ask this of you."

"I can not imagine anything you could tell me that would cause me to abandon you. Even if I had no other reason, you deserve it as restitution for the way I have treated you."

Elizabeth could not let herself believe him yet, but she would tell him anyway.

"You are correct that Mr. Collins has forsaken us. My mother and two of my sisters are staying with my uncle Phillips in Meryton. Jane and I have come here to assist my aunt and uncle Gardiner while he searches for our youngest sister, Lydia. An officer of the militia who had run up too many debts had his honor called on them. When he abandoned his post, my sister left with him to promises of an elopement. She thinks they are headed to Gretna Green. Colonel Foster was able to trace them as far as London, but no farther. I highly doubt that he will marry her, there is no temptation other than her good humor. For a man who is looking for a fortune, she is a poor prospect. With my father gone, my uncles have done what they can to assist, but they have families and businesses to maintain. With a widowed sister and her daughters to support, they can little afford to abandon those businesses. The couple had a week's advantage on us as well, since my father died that same night. We did not have a chance to search much before his funeral. I fear Lydia is lost."

Darcy had a feeling of dread come over him while she spoke, but forced himself to ask the next question.

"And the officer's name?"

Elizabeth looked away and whispered, "Wickham."

Darcy stood and paced the room for several minutes. His mind filtered through the rage he felt toward Wickham quickly and moved on to setting a plan of action for finding him and hopefully Miss Lydia.

When he turned back to Elizabeth, he saw her crushed expression. She began to speak as he returned to his seat to tell her of his plans.

"I understand if, after finding out how far our family has fallen, and who with, you cannot assist. It is asking too much, I know, for you to associate with us. I would not ask you to deal with that man again, but I am desperate. Even if all you can offer is leads to where he might stay so that my uncle can follow them, I would be forever grateful."

"I will not abandon you," he repeated firmly. "I have knowledge of where they could be. I have the connections needed to find them. Miss Bennet, I will find them. Please believe me when I say I will do everything in my power until I succeed."

She began to cry again. She was doomed to cry incessantly in front of this man.

"I should not question my good fortune, but how? Why? Why are you doing so much?"

"Your sister would not have been allowed to associate with a man of such low morals if I had shared what I knew of him with the neighborhood. If my pride had not kept me from relating even some of our shared history with the respectable families in the area in warning, this would not have happened. This is as much my fault as anyone else's, and so the resolution should be mine as well."

"You take too much upon yourself!" she cried. "My sister should have known better than to run off with a man! This is not your fault!"

"My sister should have known as well, and I did not learn from that. They are young, Miss Bennet. It is the job of their elders to protect them, and I failed them both."

Elizabeth reached her hand out to grasp his where it rested on his leg.

"I will not allow you to take the blame for this upon yourself. You are a good man. That you are helping at all shows your charity."

He looked down at the hand on his. When he felt her begin to withdraw, he laid his other hand on top of hers. He looked up to see a blush on her face.

"You would not think me so selfless if you knew that I also hope to gain respect in your eyes. I need to prove to you that I am a gentleman for myself. If this is my opportunity to do so, I will take it."

"Oh," she whispered, understanding his implication.

Not wanting to press her further, he gently let her hand go.

"I will take my leave of you now, but I need to speak with your uncle as soon as possible. When will he be at home?"

She gave him a time, he kissed her hand, and then left.

Darcy came back immediately before dinner, and he and Mr. Gardiner were in the study for over an hour. When they finished, he politely declined the invitation to stay for dinner, citing his sister as an excuse. He did express his hope that he would be able to join them another day.

After he left the Gardiners exclaimed over his excellent manners, calling on Elizabeth to explain her strong dislike of him. She gave vague answers, but led them to believe he had improved in her mind. When asked how he had known of their troubles, she prevaricated and said she had found him on one of her walks to the park. She did not think that her aunt and uncle would be pleased to know that her walk had taken her to a hackney and across town to his house alone. She was counting on their trust in her to keep them from questioning the maid she usually took with her.

Darcy became a regular caller at Gracechurch Street in the evenings. He met with Mr. Gardiner after dinner every night to discuss progress, and then would visit with the ladies for about a quarter hour before heading home.

The search lasted for a full week. The couple had been gone for three weeks when he started, and were well hidden. The combined efforts of Mr. Gardiner and Mr. Darcy brought Lydia back to the protection of her aunt and uncle, and neither man would speak of the conditions they had found her in.

Lydia had come in the same boisterous, carefree girl she had always been. Her aunt and sisters information on the death of her father quickly subdued her, however. She had never been close to her father, but still, he was her father. She was deeply grieved when she was told that his heart had likely stopped, and begged to know if the surprise of her elopement had caused it. They were able to relieve her of that burden, at least. He had been discovered when they went to rouse him after finding her gone.

They left her to clean up and rest under the guard of a maid and returned to the parlour.

Darcy had already departed to begin negotiations with Wickham. Lydia had declared she would not leave him without promise of a marriage, and Wickham had no intention of doing so until Darcy promised to make it worth his while.

"I do not know how this will turn out, Madeline," Mr. Gardiner said. "Darcy said that he does not think we will convince the bounder for less than seven thousand pounds, with his debts to pay and all. We do not have that, not unless I sell a portion of the business. I know we promised Lydia she could marry him, but I do not think it will be possible."

"You said that Mr. Darcy promised to make it worth his while, do you think he intends to pay for this?" asked Mrs. Gardiner.

"I cannot let him do that. How can we allow someone so wholly unconnected to the family pay this debt for us? We would be forever beholden."

Mrs. Gardiner looked to Elizabeth, "Perhaps he is not so unconnected. Lizzy, do you have anything you wish to share with us about Mr. Darcy?"

Elizabeth blushed at her aunt's perception.

"There is no understanding between Mr. Darcy and myself."

Her aunt watched her shrewdly for a moment.

"But he wishes there was."

"If he did, that time has passed. You cannot imagine he will wish to connect himself to the family of his father's steward."

"Then why would he make it sound as though he would pay for it?" asked Mr. Gardiner. His eyes turned dark for a moment, "He has not made an indelicate offer to you, has he Lizzy? He is not looking to have a debt for us to repay, is he?"

"No!" Elizabeth cried in reply. "He is a good man, he would never ask what you are implying. If he does pay for it, he is doing it because of his charity."

Mr. Gardiner looked relieved, "I did not think he could, and I am glad you confirmed it. I would not be willing to sacrifice one of you girls for the other."

"Lizzy, what has changed your opinion of him so? What else do you know of him?" asked Mrs. Gardiner.

"I was wrong about him in so many ways."

She went on to tell them of Miss Darcy's failed elopement, adding that Darcy felt himself responsible for Lydia's fall, and the full history with Wickham.

"He may have been rude in Hertfordshire, but that does not make him bad. Knowing now what he went through last summer, I think he had a reason to be less sociable than we would like. I do not think him particularly fond of society to begin with. I can be more forgiving, knowing more of him."

"I never thought him so bad," agreed Jane.

"How do you know so much of him, Lizzy?" asked Mr. Gardiner. "This is not exactly afternoon tea conversation."

Elizabeth stayed quiet, and Jane would not make eye contact with her aunt and uncle, afraid she would give away what was not hers to tell.

"Lizzy?" prompted Mrs. Gardiner.

"I refused his proposal while in Kent. I accused him of all sorts of horrible things. In his defense, he wrote me a letter explaining where I was misinformed."

The Gardiners were quiet while they absorbed what they had just heard.

"Do you think he still has hopes, Lizzy?" asked her aunt.

"I do not know!" she cried in reply. "I had thought not, but when he came last week...oh I do not know! It cannot be likely. How could a man be contemplating a proposal to a woman who has already refused him once, in an abominable fashion, and whose connections have just gone from poor to abysmal?"

"Love sometimes does strange things to a man. You might be surprised at what he is willing to bear for you, if he loves you. While I think it unwise to raise any hopes, at least we know now why he may be so willing," said Mrs. Gardiner.

Mr. Gardiner agreed, and they decided to assume the best of the man unless proven otherwise.

It took two days to negotiate with Wickham, and Darcy did take it upon himself. He paid for everything; Wickham's debts, his commission in the regulars, even the marriage license. He settled a sum on Lydia, guaranteeing an income in perpetuity for them. He did it all himself, negotiating with a man he had hoped to never see again.

When it was finished, he promised to be at the wedding, and they did not see him again for that three weeks.

Elizabeth knew then that she must have misinterpreted his meaning, that first time he called. If he had serious intentions, she would have expected him to continue calling.

She refused to be disappointed. She had spurned his affections once, and she would not dwell on the regret of possibilities. She had not fallen in love with him, and she would simply need to ensure that she never did.

The day of the wedding arrived, and Elizabeth found herself ridiculously more nervous than the bride. Lydia danced around the house, demanding attention and paying little to the fact that her sisters were in black. Confirmation of a wedding date had been enough to clear her somber mood.

No matter how much she had tried to scold herself out of it, Elizabeth had barely stopped thinking of Darcy. She had run through every possible reason why he would not call, and she could not quite confirm in her mind that it was lack of interest. She now had herself nearly ill with fretting.

It was not her day, however, and she tamped those feelings down deep. She would see him today, and she was sure she would confirm his disinterest. If he paid her little attention, if he appeared to be anxious to remove himself from this disgraceful situation, anything, then she would know.

Their party arrived at the church before the groom's. Darcy brought Wickham a few minutes before the appointed time, neatly groomed and looking bored. Elizabeth was grateful that Jane had offered to be Lydia's bridesmaid, she did not wish to be close enough to see Wickham's face while he lied his way through his vows. It made her sad to think of her young, ignorant sister being tied to such a man for the rest of her life. She had made a critical mistake, but she was young and foolish. The consequences seemed so much harsher than the crime.

Lydia was happy for now, though, and still thrilled to be the first of her sisters married. They all waved the newlyweds off from the church door, headed to Newcastle through Hertfordshire, to meet up with Wickham's new regiment. There was a collective sigh of relief when they were out of sight.

To Elizabeth's surprise, her uncle turned to Darcy and asked, "Shall we still expect you and your sister for dinner tonight, Mr. Darcy?"

She watched Darcy's eyes dart to her face as he responded, "Of course. We both look forward to it."

Her emotions were thrown back into whirlwind. What could it mean, that he would come for dinner? And with his sister?

She barely caught his leavetaking, she was so distracted by her thoughts. She managed to gather herself well enough to offer a proper curtsy, but not much more.

As soon as they entered the carriage she asked her uncle, "When did you invite Mr. Darcy to dinner?"

"Oh, three weeks ago, when we wrapped up the arrangements. I had asked if he would join us earlier, but I am sure you can understand that he could not bring his sister around by Lydia. He was worried for her sensibilities."

Elizabeth had not thought of that. She had been looking for a sign that he was not interested, but this turned that completely around. What did he mean by it?

She was not given much time to fret about it. A few hours was all that passed before Mr. and Miss Darcy were being announced to the parlour.

Elizabeth had already decided she could not depend upon Mr. Wickham's description of the girl, and was determined to give her her own chance. It was soon quite clear that Miss Darcy was not proud, only exceedingly shy. Elizabeth found herself fully distracted from her own worries by the desire to draw her out.

It was also quickly clear that Miss Darcy was still full young to be considering marriage. Elizabeth was glad for this. She had been so caught up in herself that she had not thought about her sister meeting the lady who could be considered a rival for Mr. Bingley's affections. Elizabeth watched Jane carefully after that realisation, but Jane, like she always did, treated Miss Darcy with kindness. There was no animosity toward her. Elizabeth could see the pain in Jane's eyes, but was certain no one else would.

The evening was pleasant, but far from comfortable for Elizabeth. At no point did she find herself able to converse with Darcy privately, and therefore was no closer to understanding his motives. Their guests left and Elizabeth found herself unable to sleep for the wondering.

She heard nothing of Darcy for three days, and then she and Jane were with their cousins in the park close to their home when he walked up to join them. They stood about awkwardly for a bit, before Jane introduced the topic of Miss Darcy. Both of the Bennet sisters pronounced their pleasure in meeting her, and expressed their hope of seeing her again. Darcy expressed his happiness in their response to his sister, and then they fell silent again.

Jane left them alone together when the children required assistance. She could see the tension between her two companions, and gave Elizabeth a look to let her know that she would allow them as much privacy as she could. Darcy indicated that they could walk, and Elizabeth gladly followed. This would be easier if she could be moving.

"Mr. Darcy, I would like to express how grateful I am, that we all are, for what you have done," she began immediately. She wanted him to know her gratitude, on the chance that this meeting did not end well.

Darcy was silent until Elizabeth looked up at his unreadable expression.

"Miss Bennet, I would not have you made uncomfortable. It was nothing compared to the peace of mind brought to your family."

"Sir! It was more than nothing. We had not the power nor the funds to bring about the conclusion that you did. If it were not for you, my sisters and I would have fallen into complete disgrace."

"I do not want your gratitude," he responded tersely.

Elizabeth was taken aback, "Then why did you do it?"

"Forgive me, I should not be harsh with you. I just...I...Miss Bennet, may I be frank with you?"

"Of course."

He stopped and turned to face her.

"I realise that this is wholly inappropriate, considering your state of mourning, but it appears that you no longer despise me, and I must take this chance. You once told me that I was the last man in the world you would ever consider marrying, but then you came to me and asked me if my offer still stood. While I realise that you were in a moment of desperation, I do not think you capable of marrying a man you truly despise, even when desperate. You said that you had read my letter and thought better of me. I would like the chance to grow that into something even more favorable, to prove that I am that man you thought I could be, and I do not wish to wait four months out of fear that it will not survive. I would like to be clear, however, that I involved myself in the rescue of your sister for your peace of mind, and nothing else. I would not wish to force my attentions on you in some sort of twisted recompense, and I fear that your gratitude will cause you to feel obligated to accept them."

Elizabeth quietly absorbed what Darcy was saying, surprised that he still felt so strongly for her. She had just settled it within herself, yet again, that he was no longer interested.

She was quiet for too long, and saw that Darcy was beginning to grow tense. Not wishing to cause him any more anguish, she began speaking before she had gathered her thoughts.

"Forgive me. I do not wish to pain you, and am trying to decide what to say."

He began to draw back; seeing her rejection again was crushing.

"I am sorry for having disturbed you," he choked out. "I will not bother you again."

He turned to leave only to have Elizabeth grab his arm and hold it.

"No!" she cried. "That is not what I meant at all! Please do not go! I only meant that I wish to be honest with you, and I did not expect this. You have surprised me with your declaration, when I had thought all chance of it was ruined. I do not know how I feel. It is all so very confusing."

He held himself very still and said, "I would value frankness at the moment."

She laughed, "It will be very rambling, if I tell you what is in my head."

"I do not mind, I would like to know how you think of me," he replied gently.

She sighed.

"You are difficult to understand. I do wish to know you better, but I had not thought of whether that might be out of gratitude. Your saying it made my mind wonder if that is influencing me." She paused, and then said quietly, "I find it gratifying that you still care for me after the way I have treated you. I think...I believe that I can separate my gratitude for the aid you have given my family from how I feel about you. It is all very confusing inside of me right now, however, and I do not want to give you false hope. I do not think it impossible for me to come to care for you, but I will not lie to you and say that I am well on my way."

She stopped again and watched him relax slightly.

"I will say that you are the most interesting man I have ever met, and that is in your favour."

"Then you do not object to my pursuit?"

She smiled, "I do not. I do find it curious, though, that you refer to it as 'pursuit' rather than 'suit.'"

"I am attempting to conquer your heart. I see it as a prize to be won. I do not think 'suit' an adequate expression of the challenge I am undertaking."

She laughed outright at that, "Do you expect me to be so difficult, sir?"

"I expect that I did myself no favours and that I will need to do much to prove myself. I have learned that I had no idea how to please a woman of your worth."

She availed herself of his arm and set them to walking again.

"Then I shall need to help you along," she said sweetly. She was feeling relief, and that did much to settle her mind.

"I would not object to help," he replied.

Elizabeth smirked, "You may want to be careful what you wish for. I have some ideas, but they will not be easy."

"What could you possibly set before me that could not be overcome by my sheer desire to be in your favour?"

"You will visit with my mother when given the opportunity, and carry on a polite conversation?"

He looked uncomfortable, but forced the reply, "I will certainly try."

"If it helps, you do have something in common with her."

He raised an eyebrow but kept silent, not wishing to insult her family.

"You both wish to see me married off, preferably to the wealthiest man of my acquaintance."

She saw his shock at her teasing and smiled.

"You did not think I would cease teasing, did you?"

"I should hope not. I had not expected it, though. You have been so subdued as of late."

Her eyes clouded, "There was not much to be happy about."

"There was not, but I hope you will begin to see better days. I will not tell you that it ever stops hurting, to lose such a beloved father, but the pain eases with time."

"Thank you," she whispered. "It is good to know that this hurt is survivable."

"Was there anything else you had for my challenge?" Darcy asked after a bit, hoping to bring the light back into her eyes.

Elizabeth stayed serious as she answered, "Will you be correcting Mr. Bingley's misinformation on the state of my sister's heart?"

Darcy looked at Jane in surprise, having forgotten that she was still there.

"Do you think her still in love with my friend?" He asked.

"Yes," she replied confidently.

"Then I will confess my mistakes to Bingley and offer him all of my encouragement."

"Thank you."

He was quiet, bothered by the fact that she felt the need to thank him for correcting what he should not have interfered with in the first place.

Elizabeth, seeing Jane gather up the children and not wanting to end their tete-e-tete so somberly, said, "Do you mind terribly if I always express my opinion, even it goes against your own and is at least a little shocking?"

"I would expect no less," he replied with a smile.

"Then I expect we shall get along famously."

They returned to Gracechurch Street then, both with much hope for their future.

A/N: For those reading Unanswered Prayers, I have not abandoned you! I am struggling with getting these latest chapters to sound right and I refuse to publish something I would consider just good enough. This little idea has also been driving me crazy, refusing to leave me alone. I have now excised this demon, and I hope to return to the flow of UP. I figured the least I could do was give you this to read while you wait.